Tales of the Sausage Factory:
Twenty Years of Sausage Factory (and Wetmachine) — So Long and Thanks For All the Fish?

I suppose it says something that I am rushing to get something written before the end of the year to mark the 20th Anniversary of Tales of the Sausage Factory (my first blog post was December 10, 2003). At the high point, from 2006-09 I was cranking out over 100 blogs a year. The last several years It’s dropped down to about 6.

 

Why? Well, things have changed a lot since 2003. The world has become less bloggy. Like a lot of folks, I shifted a bunch to social media — although I’ve dropped out of that a lot since Elon Musk ruined Twitter. I’ve blogged and written articles in other places. But mostly, life happened. Writing this blog takes a fair amount of time and effort. I used to be able to crank stuff out (especially as I didn’t bother to worry too much about spelling) in the wee hours of the morning while everyone else at home was asleep. That’s not really possible anymore. Over the last several years, at any given time, I’ve had half a dozen drafts in various stages of completion — usually deleted after it became clear they weren’t relevant anymore or they were just going to take too much work to do right.

 

Because I really do want to do it right — which means a couple of things. My overarching goal for this blog is something I’ve described over the years as the “201” version of policy. (Well, my corner of the policy world.) There are (or at least were) blogs that tell you why you should care. And there are resources written for people who are well informed and want a deep dive. But there is a lot less out there for folks who already know they care (or think they should care) and want something in between a one-pager and a research paper. Especially with all the important links in one place. I used to say I had a rule of thumb that if I had to explain something 3 times I’d blog about it. And I’ve found it useful in terms of documenting things like what I’ve actually said about net neutrality all these years (including the importance of Title II as a source of regulatory authority and how that was even more important than just an anti-disrcimination rule).

 

I’m not giving up on trying to write for this blog at least a few times a year. And I’m proud of what I’ve managed to do here over the years. This blog has been cited in law review articles, by press, on Wikipedia, and lots of other places I only vaguely know about. But I rather doubt this will come close to what it used to be. And, if I can quote Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor right before regenerating into Pete Capaldi’s 12th: “We all change. When you think about it, w’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s OK, that’s good. You’ve got to keep moving. So long as you remember all the people, that you used to be.”

 

I don’t know where I’m going next. In some ways I’m staying where I’ve been for awhile. I’m still at Public Knowledge and, as I said, I will still try to write blogs here. But time goes on, and where it takes us who can say?

 

I owe this blog to John Sundman — and everyone should go support his Substack “Sundman Figures It Out.” You can read the story here from my blog post celebrating the 10th anniversary of this blog.

 

Stay tuned . . .

Tales of the Sausage Factory:
Quick Update on Fox29 License Challenge License Renewal Challenge.

Two developments happened since I posted my Insanely Long Field Guide to the Fox29 license renewal challenge that potentially bear on the challenge. The first is Rupert Murdoch’s retirement announcement. The second is the Administrative Law Judge Decision in the other pending Character Policy case. As discussed below, neither really impacts the challenge to Fox29 — at least not at the hearing determination stage.

 

I explain why below.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
My Insanely Long Field Guide to the Fox29 Philadelphia (WTFX-TV) License Renewal Challenge.

In July, the Media and Democracy Project filed a Petition to Deny the license renewal of Fox29 (WTFX-TV) in Philadelphia. The Petition rests on a particular feature of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broadcast licensing law. Every 8 years, a broadcast station must apply to the FCC to renew its broadcast license, which requires a showing that the licensee has — among other things — the requisite character to hold a broadcast license. The scope of behavior the FCC will consider under its 1986 Character Policy and subsequent amendments is fairly narrow — it does not, for example, include littering or making a nuisance of oneself. But it is not entirely limited to behavior involving the broadcast license itself. It includes any conduct that calls into question whether you can be trusted to run a broadcast station under the FCC’s rules and as a “trustee of the community of service.” In other words, the FCC can send you to the Group W Bench (here, a hearing) where, to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, they decide if you are moral enough to hold an FCC broadcast license.

 

MAD challenges renewal of Fox29 on the grounds that Fox Corp, the ultimate owner of Fox Television Broadcast Stations (FTBS) and Rupert Murdoch and son Lachlan (principle shareholders who have previously been found to have de facto influence or control over FTBS as well as Fox Corp.) lack the requisite character to hold a Commission broadcast license. They point to the settlement in the Dominion defamation case, where Fox Corp. and Murdoch as the named defendants acknowledged (but did not formally admit to the truth of) the earlier findings of the district court that they had made false statements about the outcome of the 2020 election on Fox News Cable Network and the role of Dominion Voting System machines in supposedly “stealing” the election. (They attach the relevant decision and press statement to the Petition). This conduct, they argue, violates the Commission’s Character Policy — making Fox Corp and Murdoch inherently unfit to act as a broadcast licensee. FTBS responds in opposition that this is all irrelevant because none of the behavior involved Fox29 and that refusing to renew the license would violate the First Amendment. MAD replies that actions that violate the Character Policy do not need to involve the licensee, and that holding licensees accountable under the Character Policy does not violate the First Amendment, as it is long settled that there is no First Amendment right to a broadcast license and that the Commission has an obligation to ensure that all license grants serve the public interest. (See NBC v. United States and Red Lion Broadcasting Co. generally).

 

Most people who have paid attention to this have dismissed the Petition as frivolous and a waste of time. But the Petition raises some interesting, novel questions under the law. It also has attracted support from a number of folks involved in the formation of Fox as the fourth TV network, including Preston Padden (Fox’s main lobbyist in the 1980s and 90s), Ervin Duggan (former FCC Commissioner) and William Kristol (conservative pundit and former frequent guest on Fox), Jamie Kellner (first President of Fox Television) and former FCC Chair Al Sikes. I also note that the FCC has taken the highly unusual step of opening this license renewal hearing to public comment. To be clear, this step by the FCC does not indicate that the FCC has made any determination about the merits, but is a recognition that there is a public interest in allowing people to file in favor and against.

 

My point is that while getting the FCC to hold a hearing — let alone deny Fox29’s application for renewal — is certainly a long shot given how the FCC works, this is not a frivolous claim. To the contrary, it raises some very interesting questions from an FCC law perspective. So it is worth actually walking through the process here and what questions the FCC would need to resolve either to dismiss the Petition to Deny or to Designate for a Hearing. Because ultimately, unless the FCC finds a procedural deficiency, the FCC is going to have to actually write up a real and binding decision with real consequences and real precedential value.

 

Full disclosure, I’ve known and been friends with Preston Padden for a long time, and I rather hope this gets to the hearing phase if for no other reason than It Would Be Fun. But I will also say up front (and for reasons I will elaborate in below), I find it extremely unlikely the FCC will grant on the Petition. Still, it cannot get out of addressing the interesting questions raised by this case.

 

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
Why Canada’s C-18 Isn’t Working Out As Expected.

Back at the end of June, Canada passed C-18, aka “The Online News Act,” a law designed to make Google and Facebook negotiate with news providers for linking to news. In theory, C-18 is based on the Australia News Media Bargaining Code, which Australia adopted in 2021. It also follows the EU adoption of Article 15 as part of its 2019 Copyright Directive — although supporters of this approach don’t seem to want to talk about Article 15 much. Supporters of the “free market” approach adopted by C-18, which requires Google and Facebook to enter into negotiations with news providers (defined in various ways) argue that the NMBC has been a huge success, forcing Goog and FB to pay $200 million AU and that this money has been spent on reporters and other news-producing stuff not just gone into the pockets of big news conglomerates as critics such as my employer Public Knowledge keep warning will happen. There is a fair amount of evidence to refute this rosy tale of success, but let us set that aside for the moment.

 

The supposed success of the AU NMBC is one of the biggest arguments in support of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act and the California version. It was a major reason why supporters of Canada’s C-18 assured everyone that FB and Goog were bluffing when they said they would simply stop linking to news if Canada passed C-18. After all, they made the same threat in Australia and, other than a brief weekend when FB stopped linking to news in Australia, they ultimately went along with the AU NMBC. So hang in there, supporters of this approach keep telling Canada! Trust us, they’ll cave, because the AU NMBC is a huge success!

 

My employer Public Knowledge has an entire resource page devoted to what’s wrong with this approach in general and JCPA in particular. I’ve written about this a couple of times as well. So I won’t rehash the problems with JCPA too much below. Instead, I want to focus on one this argument that C-18 (and JCPA) are just like the amazingly awesomely successful Australia approach. After a bit of digging, I found two things:

  1. C-18 is not like the NMBC in some really critical ways. Which is why Goog and FB are not reacting the way they did to NMBC. Notably, the NMBC lets Goog and FB negotiate private deals not subject to any sort of review or mandatory arbitration. C-18 fixes these loopholes by requiring mandatory arbitration and transparency. Hence the very different reaction from Goog and FB.
  2. The claim that NMBC was a “success” comes from two primary sources: the officially mandated study by the Australian Government one year after adoption of the NMBC (available here) and a follow up report by Rod Sims, the guy who wrote the NMBC and pushed it through. As I will explain in a separate post, and as others have noticed before me (see here and here), the biggest beneficiary was News Corp, whose subsidiaries took in the bulk of the money (Crikey! I’m shocked!), followed by Nine Entertainment, the next largest media conglomerate. Next came AU’s major public broadcaster, which is the primary source of the “the money went to news production — really!” anecdote. After that, you got increasingly smaller deals for smaller outlets, with most outlets cut out altogether and no transparency into this because it relies on private deals.

So if your definition of success was “Goog and FB pay off the major outlets like they were basically doing, but with bigger buckets of loot going to Rupert Murdoch & friends,” then this worked totally great! In fact, this scheme works so much like the way the cable cartel and the broadcaster cartel negotiate with each other (including providing things like C-Span so they can threaten to take it away and squeezing out independent minority-owned networks in favor of vertically integrated ones) that it makes me want to weep tears of Cassandrafreude. Heck, it even includes an official report with unverified industry posting that only true believers can take seriously — just like the old FCC cable competition report!

 

As a result, as reported by Michael Geist, the Canadian government is now apparently trying to use its rulemaking to implement the act to bring this inline with what the AU NMBC actually does, make it possible for Goog and FB to make private payments to the politically powerful media to make this issue go away. Whether that will end up being enough at this point remains to be seen. I would hope that this serves as a valuable lesson in life for those trying to replicate the “success” of NMBC (like, maybe read the source material with a jaundiced eye that comes from 20+ years of reading similar FCC reports). More importantly, the idea that you can pass a law that actually fixes the problems with the NMBC and not have Goog and FB flip out is a delusion because it fails to understand the economics of any of this. Yes, there is a real problem with how online advertising works, but that requires real solutions that identify the real problems and addresses them. (There are some already out there, you can see Public Knowledge’s “Superfund for the Internet” here, FAQ here).

 

I will pick apart the claim that the Australia NMBC worked– if by “worked” we mean actually fed money to small news organizations that dedicated the money to news production rather than simply funneled money to the biggest news media — in my next blog post. For now, I will focus on why Google and Facebook are reacting in such a radically different way to C-18 and why this isn’t just a bargaining tactic. Unlike the NMBC, the law actually designates Google and FB as entities subject to the law and therefore obligated to participate in the government supervised arbitration process. The NMBC — as explained below — does not designate Goog or FB to actually do anything, as long as they keep the big news producers happy.

 

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
What is the FCC’s Role in Artificial Intelligence?

There are two types of public events here in DC. Those designed to actually educate people and those designed so that folks can display their talking points like dancing peacocks displaying their tail feathers to attract a mate. The Federal Communications Commission and National Science Foundation had a half-day workshop on July 13 to discuss the role of AI in telecom and — specifically — what is the FCC’s role here in promoting innovation and adoption of AI tools in telecom and what are the challenges the FCC should address. Happily, this event was of the educational kind and well worth watching if the intersection of AI and telecom is your thing. You can see the video here.

 

To forestall the usual panic and “regulation, we hates it precious!” response, I will point out that Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is a self-described optimist about the value of AI in telecom. You can see her opening remarks here. The event was very much about showcasing the positives of AI and pushing back on the current uncanny valley freakout driving the current policy discussions. I was invited to speak on the first panel, which focused on the current state of research and applications and how this fits into the FCC’s overall responsibilities for spectrum management and telecommunications network management. These are the remarks I prepared below. It didn’t quite come out this way (I appear on the video at about 57:30 for those interested in how it actually came out.

 

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
AI Policy and the Uncanny Valley Freakout.

We have been debating, on and off, about the issues around artificial intelligence and AI governance for some time now. Here at Public Knowledge, we published our first white paper on the subject in 2018. But the last few months have seen an explosion of interest and a sudden consensus that powerful AI tools require some sort of regulation. Hardly a day goes by without a new editorial calling for regulation of AI, or a high-profile story on the potential threat of AI to jobs (ranging from creative jobs such as Hollywood writers or musicians to boring lawyers), or a story on new AI threats to consumers, or even how AI poses an existential threat to our democracy. A recent Senate Hearing produced a rare bipartisan consensus on the need for new laws and federal regulation to mitigate the threats posed by AI technology. In response, technology giants such as Google and Microsoft have published new proposed codes of conduct and regulatory regimes that include not merely the usual calls for self-regulation, but also actually invite government regulation as well.

Or, to quote my colleague Sara Collins, “AI is having a moment.” Unfortunately, that moment turns out to be a total uncanny valley freakout. Yes, there are serious issues here — and some very smart folks have been talking about them for years. But suddenly a chatbot starts hitting on people and it’s all “AAAAAGGHHH!!! We are doomed!! Doomed!!! The AIs are coming for us, and none of them look like Scarlett Johansen!” One does not have to totally agree with Adam Conover that AI hype is total baloney to recognize the signs of a full-blown irrational panic. And, as a general rule, total panic freakouts rarely lead to good policy outcomes.

 

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
Gonzales v. Google Validates My Theory of Legislative Drafting — Be Really, Really Detailed and Longwinded.

Every now and then, I do some legislative drafting. I tend to get pushback on my habit of including a bunch of legislative findings and statements of policy, and what some consider my over-detailed definitions. The usual challenge I get is “everyone knows what we’re talking about.” My response: “I’m not writing for us. I’m writing for some judge 25 years from now with no idea what we’re talking about or trying to do.”

 

Which brings me to Gonzales v. Google, the Supreme Court case in which the Justices will take their first shot at interpreting Section 230 of the Communications Act. Distill down the thousands of pages of briefs, brush away the policy arguments, and it all boils down to one question: “What did Congress actually mean when it said don’t treat online services as the ‘publisher of speaker’ of third-party content”? Does it mean (a) the plain English ‘don’t treat the provider of the online service as if that provider actually said the thing’ – so you can’t sue a provider of an “interactive computer service” (to use the actual statutory term) for anything relating to third party content; or (b) does it mean ‘this section provides only protection from liability as a ‘publisher’ under the common law’ – but feel free to impose liability as a common law distributor of third party content (or possibly for any other kind of liability outside the rather narrow common law universe of defamation)?

 

Because this question comes a lot, and because I expect lots of folks to follow the Gonzales case, I decided to run through the type of analysis courts typically engage in when trying to interpret what Congress meant and why courts can come up with wildly divergent explanations.

 

Yes, policy issues and outcome determination matter. But good judges at least try to figure these things out, and even bad judges (by which I mean those determined to reach a specific outcome no matter what the statute actually says) need to couch their opinions in the form of legislative analysis. This is why lawyers and scholars spend so much time on the subject.

 

So if you want to understand how this game works to follow the arguments in Gonzales v. Google, see below. Along the way, I’ll highlight how W. VA v. EPA may complicate things with its stupid ‘let’s look at what Congress didn’t pass’ analysis.

 

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
S. Korea “Sender Pays” Is a Warning, Not a Model, or Why (Almost) Everyone Keeps Telling the EU This Is a VERY Bad Idea.

Economist/NYT opinion writer Paul Krugman coined the term “Zombie idea” to describe an idea that, despite being repeatedly refuted with evidence, keeps coming back. Not surprisingly, zombie ideas typically have powerful constituencies that benefit from the adoption of the zombie idea they push, and who invest a great deal of money and energy continuing to resurrect the idea each time it gets killed.

 

This Halloween brings us the return of the “content companies should pay money to last mile networks because they use more resources” idea. I first explained why this was a dumb idea back in 2006, after then-AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre explained that he wasn’t going to let companies with content his subscribers actually wanted “use his pipes for free,” Despite lots of reasons why this is a Dumb Idea that would end up seriously reorganizing the internet economy for the worse, you find carriers around the world reviving it because $$$. This is particularly true outside the U.S., where the argument also gets caught up in debates about American dominance of internet content and popular culture. There is a separate U.S. flavor, supported by folks like Brendan Carr, about charging “big tech” to build out broadband infrastructure, which I’ve also previously criticized. But the non-US flavor has been gaining traction as a function of the “Techlash” and therefore needs some in depth discussion — especially since we can actually see the predicted bad consequences play out in real time in South Korea.

 

Back in 2016, South Korea adopted a new interconnection rule based on a long-standing telco compensation rule called “sending party network pays” (SPNP). As I’ll explain in detail below, SPNP has deep roots in the whacky world of telecom “settlement” (the fancy word for who pays whom in international calling) how networks compensated each other for exchanging traffic. Those opposed to adopting this approach predicted (based on about 100 years of history) that it would prove impossible to enforce without super intrusive government oversight and would introduce severe latency into S. Korea’s networks as the “sending networks” (such as Netflix, but also gaming companies and others with high resolution visual content) routed traffic in clever ways to avoid paying significant charges. To the surprise of no one except the advocates for the proposal, the predicted badness happened. The cost of transit skyrocketed, latency dramatically increased, and the Korean government keeps needing to consider new and more intrusive ways to (a) stop companies from avoiding the fees to ISPs while (b) trying to target foreign content providers while protecting domestic uses they like — such as video chat and video games.

 

Despite this real world example, and an impressive array of folks explaining in detail why they totally hate this stupid idea, important folks in the European Council (egged on by the EU telcos) continue to think this is a Totally Awesome Idea. So I will explain how we got here, what traditional “sending network party pays” actually means, why this ain’t it, but even setting that aside, why what happened in S. Korea shows this is a Really Dumb Idea.

 

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
The JCPA Does More To Help Big Media Then Local Journalism (This Is My shocked Face).

(The original version of this appeared on the blog of my employer, Public Knowledge.)

 

At Public Knowledge, we’ve talked a lot about the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) and why we think it’s a very bad idea. But the most recent version made public raises a new twist. For a statute supposedly designed to save journalism and avert the “newspaperpocalypse,” it drastically favors broadcasters over newspapers and gives the biggest rewards to massive media conglomerates rather than local newspapers. Given the role media consolidation has played in destroying local news, and the fact that local TV broadcasting remains quite profitable, this outcome gets a rare 5 out of 5 Morissettes on the irony scale

 

To make this even more annoying, Public Knowledge has a much better proposal for using big tech to support local media. Or Congress could go with this Free Press proposal (echoed by econ Nobel winner Paul Roemer in this op ed) to tax targeted advertising to fund local journalism. There are lots of better ways to tax big tech to fund local journalism that have the advantage of actually funding local journalism rather than media conglomerates. But no, Congress would rather create a new exception to the antitrust laws and bring cable must carry to the internet than expressly tax targeted advertising to fund local journalism. Le sigh.

 

Details on why the current JCPA favors big media below.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
Does SCOTUS EPA Case Impact Net Neutrality? Here’s Why I Say No.

For most people, the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency was about environmental policy and what the Environmental Protection Agency can still do to cut carbon emissions. For a smaller subset, mostly lawyers, W. VA v. EPA was an important (but confusing) administrative law case that we will spend a bunch of time arguing about how to apply to agencies generally. And for the tiniest of all possible subsets, meaning me and a handful of other telecom lawyers, it was about . . . net neutrality. Because just about everything in telecom still revolves around net neutrality. Srsly. If we were living in the Don’t Look Up universe and a giant asteroid was about to smash into the Earth, I’d be getting questions from folks about whether I thought the asteroid supported classifying broadband as Title II.

 

The other basic truism about these events is that they are rather like ink blots, where what you see depends a lot on what you already think. So those who hate Title II are convinced that this spells doom for any FCC reclassification efforts, whereas those on the pro-Title II side think this doesn’t really change anything. I’m as much a human being subject to this bias as anyone else. So I can only explain why I think W.VA. v. EPA hasn’t changed anything and let y’all decide if I’m right. It all depends on what the Court means by a “major question” that requires “clear proof” that Congress intended to vest the agency with the power to do the thing.

 

Annoyingly, the Supreme Court has not been particularly clear on this concept. The anti-Title II folks point to Kavanaugh’s dissent from the D.C. Circuit’s refusal to rehear USTA v. FCC (the case that upheld the FCC’s 2015 Title II/Net Neutrality Order, which rested in part of what Kavanaugh called “the major rule” doctrine (now officially called “major question” doctrine) and the fact that the Roberts decision in W.VA v. EPA cited the Kavanaugh dissent (although not for anything having to actually do with net neutrality.) On the other hand, as I explain below, the actual language describing the “major question doctrine” if you read the case runs against the description of the “major rules doctrine” as described by Kavanaugh in USTA. More importantly, the Court’s reliance on Gonzales v. Oregon – which cites the FCC’s authority over broadband in Brand X approvingly as an example of where Congressional delegation is “clear” – seems to me much more important than a passing citation to the Kavanaugh dissent.

 

Additionally, while we always knew where Kavanaugh would be if this ever reaches SCOTUS again, there is plenty of reason to believe he lacks 4 additional votes for his position. Notably, Thomas (and to some degree it seems Alito and Gorsuch) have all fallen in love with common carrier again. True, that is in the context of social media, but it would be a level of weirdness to find that judges by common law can determine Facebook is a common carrier but broadband providers can’t be common carriers without Congress expressly saying so. Also, Thomas actually wrote the Brand X opinion, which found that it was totally cool for the FCC to classify DSL as Title II even if cable broadband were classified as Title I, so it’s hard to see how this kind of agency discretion is compatible with “major question doctrine.”

 

I break all this down in detail below . . .

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